2006 - %3, May

How to Conquer Canada

| Tue May. 2, 2006 12:32 PM PDT

Michael Byers, a professor in British Columbia, writes in the Toronto Star about a little-known plan to increase cooperation between the Canadian and American militaries:

They seem harmless enough at first: two mid-level Canadian Forces officers and a mild-mannered bespectacled American consultant explaining the work of their 48-member Bi-National Planning Group to audiences across Canada. Their professed goal is to improve co-operation between the Canadian and U.S. militaries, the better to defend both countries.

Yet a close reading of their final report released last month, reveals that their actual intent — or at least the intent of the politicians who set their mandate — is far from benign. They seek nothing less than the complete integration of Canada's military, security and foreign policy into the decision-making and operating systems of the U.S. …

Today, two Canadian elections later, the authors of the BPG report can hardly believe their luck. Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have only a minority government, but there is little doubt he desires closer ties with Washington.Really? What? Looking more closely, it's hard to say what will actually come of this. Certainly there are degrees of cooperation being considered. At the very lowest level, the BPG report recommends that the two countries expand the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which was established during the Cold War to watch for threats from the air, in order to include maritime surveillance. (And yes, the idea that this continent is in danger of an attack by sea seems ludicrous, but there you go.)

The BPG's most radical proposal, however, is to put the Canadian military essentially under U.S. command. Does that mean we could use Canadian troops whenever election time rolled around and a failed president needed to topple some "rogue" regime somewhere? It's not clear, but it sure sounds that way. Of course, that could make any sort of U.S. military action more difficult if the average Canadian voter—who appears a bit less militaristic than your average American voter—suddenly has a right to sound off on who's invading whom. Either way, it's kind of a weird development.

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Same-Sex Couples and Immigration

| Tue May. 2, 2006 12:03 PM PDT

It's not entirely surprising, but Human Rights Watch points out in a new report that current immigration law discriminates rather seriously against gays and lesbians. There are at least 40,000 same-sex couples in the United States in which one partner is a citizen or permanent resident and the other a foreign national. But in those relationships, the U.S. citizen isn't allowed to sponsor his or her partner for entry into the country in the way that virtually all heterosexual couples can:

For more than 50 years, family reunification has been a stated and central goal of U.S. immigration policy. Immigration law places a priority on allowing citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their spouses and close relatives for entry into the U.S. Although the system remains imperfect, riddled with delays that rising anti-immigrant sentiment only intensifies, U.S. citizens and their foreign heterosexual partners can easily claim spousal status and the immigration rights that it brings.

U.S. citizens with foreign lesbian or gay partners, however, find that their relationship is considered non-existent under federal law. … Based on interviews and surveys with dozens of binational same-sex couples across the United States and around the world, the report documents the pressures and ordeals that lack of legal recognition imposes on lesbian and gay families. Couples described abuse and harassment by immigration officials. Some partners told stories of being deported from the United States and separated from their partners. Many couples, forced to live in different countries or continents, endure financial as well as emotional strain in keeping their relationships together.
A number of transnational same-sex couples end up in exile in one the 19 countries that actually allow same-sex couples to immigrate. Interestingly—or depressingly; take your pick—the report notes that a good deal of immigration policy in the United States has been motivated by fears of sexuality for quite some time. Up until 1990, the U.S. barred foreign-born gays and lesbians from entering the country, a policy that started in the McCarthy era. It still imposes a ban on H.I.V.-positive individuals from entering the country—one of the only industrialized countries to do so—despite the fact that there's not really a compelling public health reason to do so. And now this, which, sadly, isn't likely to be corrected anytime soon.

The Decline of Workplace Safety

| Tue May. 2, 2006 11:35 AM PDT

I probably should've linked to this a few days ago, but Jordan Barab had an outstanding post on Worker's Memorial Day about the dismal state of workplace safety standards in the United States. Workplace deaths have risen to 6,000 a year—that's 15 every day; serious injuries are going underreported; negligent employers are getting off lightly; and the Bush administration continues to gut MSHA and OSHA, the two agencies responsible for workplace safety. This part is particularly damning:

Although rarely used, OSHA has the ability to criminally prosecute employers when a willful violation of a standard leads to the death of a worker. ("Willful" means violations in which the employer knew that workers' lives were being put at risk.)

OSHA was embarrassed in 2003 by a New York Times investigation that revealed that from 1982 to 2002, OSHA declined to seek criminal prosecution in 93 percent of more than 1200 cases where a worker was killed due to a willful violation of an OSHA standard. At least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even these repeat violators were rarely prosecuted. Fewer than 20 employers have ever gone to jail despite well over a thousand cases involving work deaths that involve "willful" OSHA violations over the past twenty years.Indeed, most of the time OSHA merely chooses to slap fines on willfully negligent employers; but the maximum fine only comes to $70,000 (and fines rarely reach even that)—hardly enough to persuade billion-dollar businesses to just think a bit harder about worker safety. Barab notes that state and local prosecutors have tried to exact stricter punishments, but, of course, unless the federal government steps in, businesses will frequently be able to move to whatever part of the country has the laxest standards and the gentlest juries. But, of course, the federal government won't step in so long as a wholly-owned subsidiary of big agribusiness, etc., is sitting in the White House.

White House trying to get suit against NSA thrown out of court

| Mon May. 1, 2006 5:18 PM PDT

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, filed a class action suit against the government at the end of January, claiming that AT&T's alleged cooperation with the National Security Agency in eavesdropping on Americans violates Constitutionally guaranteed free speech and privacy rights. AT&T has not responded to the suit, but on Friday, the U.S. Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest, saying it intends to intervene and have the suit tossed out of court. The government plans to invoke the State Secrets privilege.

According to the EFF:

The lawsuit alleges that AT&T Corp. has opened its key telecommunications facilities and databases to direct access by the NSA and/or other government agencies, thereby disclosing to the government the contents of its customers' communications as well as detailed communications records about millions of its customers, including the lawsuit's class members.

The lawsuit also alleges that AT&T has given the government unfettered access to its over 300 terabyte "Daytona" database of caller information -- one of the largest databases in the world. Moreover, by opening its network and databases to wholesale surveillance by the NSA, EFF alleges that AT&T has violated the privacy of its customers and the people they call and email, as well as broken longstanding communications privacy laws.

The lawsuit also alleges that AT&T continues to assist the government in its secret surveillance of millions of Americans. EFF, on behalf of a nationwide class of AT&T customers, is suing to stop this illegal conduct and hold AT&T responsible for its illegal collaboration in the government's domestic spying program, which has violated the law and damaged the fundamental freedoms of the American public.

Why Currency Reserves Matter

| Mon May. 1, 2006 4:36 PM PDT

This goes in the "obscure but sort of important" folder. Eduardo Porter reports that developing countries are building up excessively large currency reserves, partly as "insurance against financial disaster." Rather tragically, these countries tend to lose money on all the dollars they're buying up—and it's not like they can really afford to lose money here—and what's worse, the money they spend padding their reserves is money they're not spending on important things, like health care or infrastructure or other domestic investments.

So why are they all doing it? Dean Baker and Karl Walentin have argued before that it's because everyone thinks the international financial system is rather volatile and no one wants to go through the same meltdown that countries in East Asia suffered in the late '90s. But the fact that these poorer countries all have to incur very large costs because of a rickety system set up largely to benefit the richer countries indicates, as Baker and Walentin wrote, "a serious failing of international financial institutions."

Bush Feels Free to Ignore Law

| Mon May. 1, 2006 2:26 PM PDT

Does this look like a crisis to anyone else?

President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Among the laws Bush said he can ignore are military rules and regulations, affirmative-action provisions, requirements that Congress be told about immigration services problems, ''whistle-blower" protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.On another note, there seem to be a lot of Republicans upset today that various immigration proposals will "reward" people who are breaking the law. Entirely unrelated stories, no doubt.

MORE: And just in case any members of Congress think they'd like to have a say in whether or not the U.S. launches military strikes against, say, Iran, this bit is noteworthy:

On at least four occasions while Bush has been president, Congress has passed laws forbidding US troops from engaging in combat in Colombia, where the US military is advising the government in its struggle against narcotics-funded Marxist rebels.

After signing each bill, Bush declared in his signing statement that he did not have to obey any of the Colombia restrictions because he is commander in chief.Okay, then.

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'Turning Point' in Iraq? Probably Not.

| Mon May. 1, 2006 12:01 PM PDT

The New York Times reports that the Army has set up mock Iraqi villages here in California so that soldiers can practice fighting insurgents. Presumably that means that the military is already planning to dig in and stay in Iraq for a long time, despite the odd rumors of a massive drawdown. On the other hand, this interview suggests that no matter how adept the military gets at counterinsurgency, the larger overall strategy in Iraq is so incoherent that it probably won't do much good:

"There is a paradox in the approach," said Kalev Sepp, a former Special Forces officer and one of the most vocal proponents for changing the Army. "The training in the United States and in Iraq is teaching all the right things — decentralization of authority and responsibility to the lowest levels, engagement with the Iraqi population, cultural awareness and political sensitivity — the full broad range of measures needed to defeat the insurgency."

"But on the ground," Mr. Sepp said in an interview, "the troops are being moved onto these large consolidated bases and being drawn away from the population just at point that they have been trained to engage them." Nowhere are the changes in the Army's thinking more visible than at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin.Meanwhile, the Washington Post ran the headline, "Merits of Partitioning Iraq or Allowing Civil War Weighed" over the weekend and now today Sen. Joe Biden chimes in with a plan to split Iraq up into three separate countries. Juan Cole thinks it's a bad idea and has his own proposal for partition. The idea that the United States, under this administration, could handle anything like the "peaceful" break-up of a country deftly strikes me as totally unrealistic, not to mention potentially horrifying (it's worth noting that Biden's model for partition, the Dayton Accords, failed to resolve the Kosovo issue, which indirectly led to yet another round of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans only five years later), but that seems to be what the experts all think.